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IJM President Visits Guatemala, Government Re-commits to Equip Police to Fight Sexual Violence

IJM President Gary Haugen signed an historic agreement with Guatemalan officials on August 12, which will allow IJM to train Guatemalan national police on protecting children from sexual assault.

“When you look at the statistics, the problem of sexual violence against children quickly becomes overwhelming. Criminals and pedophiles know their odds of getting caught for abusing an impoverished child are very low,” says IJM Guatemala Director Brad Twedt. “But, the Guatemalan government is taking steps to change this reality and make this country a safer place for children.”

The agreement comes at a crucial time. Violence is a huge factor forcing tens of thousands of Central American children to flee their countries and cross the U.S. border. But as IJM Vice President of Government Relations Holly Burkhalter writes in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, it’s not just the narco-violence and gangs that have made the headlines causing children to flee—they are also trying to escape epidemic levels of sexual abuse.

A Groundbreaking Step Forward

For nearly a decade, IJM has been working in Guatemala to rescue and restore children who have suffered sexual violence and ensure pedophiles are held to account, rescuing more than 235 children since 2005 and securing convictions against 173 criminals. By collaborating with local authorities on individual cases of sexual abuse, IJM staff have identified the gaps in the justice system that leave impoverished children defenseless—and ways to close those gaps so the poor are safe.

Burkhalter explains that Guatemala is not a country where sexual violence is spoken about openly; she says that this makes the agreement signed on August 12 all the more groundbreaking and inspiring.

Today, Most Guatemalans Don’t Expect Justice

IJM recently completed a major study of how cases of sexual violence progress in the Guatemalan court system, reviewing all 36,166 reports of sexual assault made in Guatemala over a five-year period.

The results were stunning: 94 out of every 100 cases of sexual violence reported between 2007 and 2012 had not reached a verdict by 2012. Considering the fact that many victims don’t report the crime at all for fear of retribution or because they simply don’t know how, the picture of impunity becomes even more vivid.

Police Need Tools to Fight Sexual Violence

The country’s first Sex Crimes Unit—a force that will specifically investigate rape and other forms of sexual violence—was established just over a year ago in Guatemala City. The unit is set up to address the major chokepoint revealed in IJM’s study, by ensuring investigations are completed and cases move into local courts. There are plans for the officers to expand into every region in the country.

However, until now, the Sex Crimes Unit has received limited specialized training. And without proper training, there is no way for the unit to be effective—which is why today’s agreement is so powerful.

“The Children Need Us”

IJM President Gary Haugen represented IJM as an honorary witness on the Memorandum of Understanding—the agreement that authorizes new training for all police, with an in-depth curriculum for the Sex Crimes Unit.

Gary addressed the crowd of more than 200 dignitaries, prosecutors and judges, acknowledging the hard work that has gone into this plan for comprehensive training: “An enormous amount of heavy lifting and hard pushing has taken place to get the ball rolling, and now there is the commitment and buy-in of the Guatemalan authorities to do what is necessary to complete the task.”

Completing the task will be no small endeavor, but as Gary encouraged the room full of leaders, “It’s the opportunity to seize the momentum for historic transformation of the criminal justice system.”

IJM will offer a basic criminal investigations course for all Guatemalan police officers and a more advanced training for officers aspiring to become agents within the Criminal Investigations Division. IJM will also facilitate a specialized course on investigative techniques, collecting evidence, and working with sexual violence victims for all current and future agents within the Sex Crimes Unit.

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